Saturday Night Theologian
2 October 2005

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year issued two rulings regarding public displays of the Ten Commandments. In a Kentucky case, the justices ruled that the state had violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in posting framed copies of the Ten Commandments, because the government's intent was religiously motivated. In a Texas case, the Court ruled that a monument that had stood on the state capitol grounds for more than forty years could remain, because it was part of a larger display of about forty stone monuments on the grounds and had historically proved uncontentious, until recently. One of the issues that religious scholars and lawyers have pointed out in discussing these and related cases is that it is inaccurate to speak of "the" Ten Commandments, because there are in fact three different enumeration schemes for the Commandments, arising out of the Jewish, Catholic/Orthodox, and Protestant traditions (plus the textual differences between the Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 versions of the Commandments). A close examination of the Texas monument reveals that the people who produced this stela were aware of the different numbering schemes and designed their monument to reflect all three (click here for the image and further details). The difference between the Catholic/Orthodox and the Protestant schemes is that the Catholic/Orthodox first commandment includes both the prohibition from worshiping other gods and making idols, whereas Protestants separate these two; and the Protestant tenth commandment includes both the prohibition against coveting one's neighbor's wife and coveting one's neighbor's property, whereas the Catholic/Orthodox scheme separates them. The Jewish enumeration follows the Catholics and Orthodox in combining the prohibitions on other gods and idols into one, and it follows the Protestants in considering the regulations against coveting as a single commandment. Since this arrangement leaves only nine commandments, the Jews traditionally begin their enumeration of the Ten Commandments earlier, with God's statement, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." The Jewish numbering scheme suggests that prior to following the commandments, one must first have a proper understanding of who God is. In a recent address to the students of Union Theological Seminary in New York, Bill Moyers told his audience that our image of God determines the actions that we are willing to take in God's name. If our God is a God of conquest, a God of violence, a God who condones the slaughter of innocents in pursuit of a "greater good," then we will feel justified in attacking other nations, subjugating the less powerful, and spreading wanton destruction in the name of God. If, on the other hand, our God is a God who stands with the oppressed, a God who sends prophets to rail against the abuses of the rich against the poor, and a God who wants us to love our enemies, our course of action will be entirely different. Rather than dropping bombs on our enemies, we will seek to make peace, first of all by alleviating injustice to the extent that we are able. Rather than support a huge defense budget, we will redirect our spending toward the basic needs of the most vulnerable, such as building better roads, more advanced schools, and unbreachable levees. Rather than cutting taxes for the rich and increasing the burden on the poor, we will work to ensure that everyone in the country--indeed, everyone in the world--has access to good food, adequate shelter, and affordable healthcare. So what kind of God is it who gives us the Ten Commandments, a God of war and violence or a God of justice and concern for the oppressed? "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery."

For another discussion of this passage, click here.

Psalm 19

When Pharaoh Akhenaton rejected the traditional gods of the Egyptians and began worshiping the sun god Aten, the priests of the other gods thought he was crazy. Despite the unpopularity of his new religion, Akhenaton was devoted. He wrote a beautiful poem called the "Hymn to the Aten," which says, in part,

You appear beautifully on the horizon of heaven,
You living Aten, the beginning of life!
When you have risen on the eastern horizon, 
You have filled every land with your beauty. . . .

When you set on the western horizon, 
The land is in darkness, in the manner of death. 
They sleep in a room, with heads wrapped up, 
Nor sees one eye the other. . . .

How manifold it is, what you have made! 
They are hidden from the face (of humanity). 
O sole god, like whom there is no other! . . .

Your rays suckle every meadow.
When you rise, they live, they grow for you. 
You make the seasons in order to rear all that you have made,
The winter to cool them, 
And the heat that they may taste you.
You have made the distant sky in order to rise therein,
In order to see all that you make.  . . .

The world came into being by your hand,
Just as you have made them. 
When you have risen they live, 
When you set they die.
You are lifetime your own self, 
For one lives (only) through you.
Akhenaton was so devoted to the sun god that he moved his capital city hundreds of miles south alongside the Nile, to a place where the Egyptian sun shone brighter and hotter than it did further north. This last week in south Texas I wondered if Akhenaton had moved nearby. Here we were in the first week of Fall, and we experienced six straight days of record-breaking, 100+ temperatures. Though the official temperature at the airport reached "only" 105 F one day, several WeatherBug stations around the area reported readings of 108, 110, even 112 degrees! Apparently Hurricane Rita, which veered north and failed to bring even a drop of rain to our parched region, absorbed all the moisture in the air, leaving our air much drier (16% relative humidity) and hotter than normal. Like the pharaoh, the psalmist praises the sun, "which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and nothing is hid from its heat." Scientists point to bigger and more intense hurricanes, the melting of Arctic sea ice, and the melting of Alaskan permafrost as evidence of global warming, but those of us living in south Texas this week needed no other proof, for we could sing with the psalmist, "Nothing is hid from its heat!"

For other discussions of this passage, click here or here.

Philippians 3:4b-14

As people this week began to return to New Orleans to survey the damage and to evaluate whether to rebuild, two comments by evacuees struck me. First, many people talked about suffering a total loss: of homes, jobs, churches, and schools. Second, many spoke of looking forward with hope to the future. New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin has moved aggressively (his critics contend too aggressively) to repopulate the city. Nagin's plan is to allow businesspeople and residents to return, according to a schedule based on safety concerns and the availability of services, and to determine for themselves whether or not it is time to come back home. In today's reading from Philippians, Paul tells his readers that the successes or failures of the past are less important than looking to the future. Paul says that he has "suffered the loss of all things" for the sake of Christ, yet he is not discouraged. As he looked at his life before his encounter with Christ on the Damascus road and compared it with his life in the present, he realized that little was left of who he was at that time. His perspective had changed, and his understanding of God had changed. Though his résumé could compare with the best of his contemporaries', his past achievements no longer mattered to him. Instead, he said that he was "forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead." If New Orleans will be rebuilt, it will be rebuilt by people who are able to set aside their losses, forget the past, and forge ahead in hope. Of course, we never really forget the past, but if our focus is on the future, the past holds less and less sway over our present lives. This lesson is also important for those of us who do not have to try to rebuild shattered lives. One lesson of Katrina is that what we have today we may not have tomorrow. If we put too much value in possessions and personal achievement, our loss of everything might be too great to handle. On the other hand, if we put our trust in the God who inhabits the future, as Jürgen Moltmann says in his Theology of Hope, we have a formula that will allow us to live lives that are meaningful, authentic, and joyful.

For another discussion of this passage, click here.

Matthew 21:33-46

When Christians in the first century told the parable of the Wicked Tenants, they probably thought of the tenants as the Jews, to whom God sent first the prophets, then Christ the Son of God. The rejection of Jesus as the messiah by the majority of the Jews was justification for the early Christians' belief that God would take the kingdom away from the Jews and give it to believing Gentiles (cf. v. 43, unique to Matthew, which enunciates this view; the word often translated "Gentiles" is translated "a people" in NRSV). It wasn't long before an understandable reaction against Jewish rejection and occasional persecution of Christians was replaced by a virulent anti-Judaism, long after the church had become largely Gentile and separated itself from Judaism. After the end of the first century or so, when Christians repeated the parable and associated the wicked tenants with the Jews who rejected Christ, they were misinterpreting it, for now they had become the wicked tenants, because they were rejecting Jesus' message of love and forgiveness and replacing it with a vicious hatred of the Jews. In our day, most Christians who read the parable continue to associate the tenants with the Jews, though (for the most part) without the concomitant hatred of modern Jews. Again, I believe that they are missing the true meaning of the story. If first-century Jews were guilty of rejecting Jesus, many twenty-first-century Christians are guilty of the same. When we fail today to show God's love to Jews, Muslims, or homosexuals, we are rejecting Jesus. When we fail to care for the poor in our midst, we are rejecting Jesus. When we are blissfully ignorant of the cries of the oppressed around the world, we are rejecting Jesus. When we support preemptive war that kills thousands of people in another country (not to mention our own), we are rejecting Jesus. As Clarence Jordan noted three decades ago, Christians make a serious mistake when they try to apply the parables of Jesus to other people without first trying to see themselves in them.